Dec 12 2012

Under pressure

explosiveScientists are well aware of the fact that pressure can change the outcome of a reaction to yield products that are ?impossible? to obtain otherwise. Pressure can also alter the behavior of matter. Gas molecules behave like liquid under high pressure and totally different characteristics emerge when supercritical conditions are reached. Another well known fact is that pressure can change the behavior of scientists and make them produce ?impossible? data. Being under a high pressure to publish is a result of current publication-based rewarding system of the academic world.[1] Academic rewards include reputation, grants and promotions (fame and money in other words, the two that top the list of human weaknesses) which are often received due to number of publications [2] instead of quality of research. Fabrication, falsification, plagiarism and concealing ?unexpected? results comes to life [3] when scientist (often deliberately) neglects the conscience for the sake of publishing more.

Believing that fraudsters will eventually come to surface is too naive to my own experience. Fraud unveils mostly in the cases where the driving force for such scientific misconduct is fame and a breakthrough is fabricated to publish in a distinguished journal such as Nature and Science. The fact that the number of retracted papers from a lower impact factor journal is 9 times less compared to that of Science [4] should certainly not mean that there are less articles need to be retracted from lower impact factor journals. I would rather discuss that there are much more articles to be retracted in lower impact factor journals but retraction happens much less in that case. The reason is that researchers certainly do not have the necessary time to follow all the related literature due to ever-increasing number of publications, that in turn a result of the pressure to publish. 

This vicious circle is one of the major challenges in scientific publishing and needs to be addressed immediately by academic consensus to my opinion. If you are not aiming for the biggest fish, you can rather easily publish in one of the numerous lower impact factor journals to reach your academic reward. Experience of many graduate students on not being able to reproduce results (generally partially) even from well respected journals encourages me to draw this conclusion. You may lose months of your precious time if you are trying to apply results of a fabricated publication to your own research. It makes you surer of yourself when you do not receive a reply from the corresponding author to your questions, which is often the case to my regret.

Another well known but unspoken way of artificial CV improving is the practice of adding names of those ?scientists in need? (postdocs or senior graduate students) to a paper of another researcher (often junior graduate student) although they have no contribution to the research of ?victim? in any means. It is generally the merciful promoter who decides which names to include to an article that may increase one by one during the pre-submission correction rounds. Junior graduate student would not dare to contest this mercy due to several reasons, the most important being the hierarchy. Since most of the academic rewarding systems, such as grant approval, counts the number of publications where place of your name in the highly populated author line-up does not really matter, ?scientist in need? may become highly successful. One solution to my opinion can be the obliged declaration of author contributions for submitted articles, which is rarely practiced at the moment. Another way to cope this misconduct can be obliged anonymous individual recognition of contribution from every other author which can be easily done via internet.

stressedFinally, perhaps the most ?innocent? and commonly practiced artificial CV improvement method is dividing the results as much as possible to publish more than one article. To my belief all this misbehavior can be at least partially avoided by a general intention of removing the pressure on academia and changing the basis of scientific rewarding. Research can be most of the times seriously frustrating for a graduate student. Every graduate student or postdoc wants to prove him/herself and is very ambitious at the start due to ?promising? projects, often highly overrated by promoter. Working day and night, sacrificing the weekends may not be enough to ever see these promised results just because they do not exist. At this point, it is difficult to carry on for you as a young researcher and convince yourself that failure is not your fault. Then there can be several conditions (supercritical conditions) that may drive the young researcher to falsify the data: A highly demanding promoter, fear of disapproval for the next contract extension for which success is sometimes determined as a prerequisite by the promoter, fear of being ignored among ?successful? colleagues, just finishing the current degree with no more troubles and move further on. Professional support from the promoter should be the key for avoiding the young researcher to do such mistakes.

M. Talha Gokmen

Originally written on 06 July 2010 while still a grad student


[1] Jones, N., Nat Med 15 (10), 1101 (2009).

[2] Qiu, J., Nature 463, 142 (2010).

[3] Martinson, B. C., Anderson, M. S., and de Vries, R., Nature 435 (7043), 737 (2005).

[4] Cokol, M., Iossifov, I., Rodriguez-Esteban, R. et al., EMBO Rep. 8 (5), 422 (2007).

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